Elaine woke up feeling like she was tied to a parcel. Not even entirely awake she felt confined, almost strangled, and started fighting her ties. As a result, she fell onto the carpeted floor before the blanket gave her free.
Groaning she rolled herself into a sitting position, leaning against the sofa. Her head hurt like hell, but it felt rather like a hangover. The right side of her face was throbbing, and her right eye now completely swollen shut.
Carefully she felt over her face. The right side felt thick and warm, but generally, her skin was less sticky. Someone had cleaned her up, she decided. And put a band-aid on her forehead, underneath which she could feel two small stitches. The same someone, presumably, had also treated her right hand to a fresh bandage. And herself to a set of fresh clothing.
She pushed herself back up on the sofa and looked around. She was in a room of around three by three meters. The concave walls and small windows told her she was on a plane. Across from her was another sofa, and armchairs, forming a square around two low coffee tables.
In the middle of the sides, thin plastic doors were set into the walls and one of them opened now. "Look who's awake," Maddox said as he stepped in and put down a steaming cup on the table in front of her.
Bray cautiously sniffed at it, then took a careful sip. "Alcohol?" she asked, regarding the cup skeptically. "Really?"
"Scotch if I'm not mistaken. Not my idea, but I thought you could use it," Maddox replied with a smile. "How are you feeling?"
"Hungover," Elaine answered and took another sip. "On the plus side, it looks like there's no frostbite or other lasting damage, which is surprising enough." She took a deep breath. "What happened to the mission?"
"Well, by the time we got you out of the freezer there was not much left of that," Maddox explained. "As far we can tell there was a fight. So far the sweepers confirmed over 50 dead. Most still have to be identified, but it looks like at least Gladiola got away."
"Damn," Elaine cursed softly, then proceeded to drain the cup.
"Do you think you're up to talking to the others?" Maddox asked, then added: "We do owe them an explanation."
Elaine looked at him pleadingly but then sighed. "I guess you're right."
It didn't take long to gather the others. Elaine had kept her spot on the sofa, huddled in one corner, while Skye and Benji had commandeered the opposite couch and everyone else had spread onto the armchairs.
Maddox had taken the lead and opened the round with a question: "What do you know about the Four Horsemen?"
"You mean, like, horsemen of the apocalypse?" Benji asked.
"I think he means the crime syndicate," Ethan put in. When Maddox nodded, he continued: "They were active in the 90s, but very secretive and not well known. Their main territory was the mid-west, but in their prime, their operations reached from coast to coast and deep into Mexico, Canada, with suspected ties to Cuba and Central America."
"The name was coined by the head of the gang, Chester Mansfield. He and his two lieutenants Dorian Sorbonne and Nestor Gladiola called themselves after the mythical figures, taking on the personas of Death, War and Famine, respectively," Brandt added but paused when he started to see the connections. Then he continued, looking at Maddox quizzically. "The gang was dismantled by an IMF operation, after the sudden death of Mansfield left them in disarray, but Sorbonne and Gladiola escaped. There were rumors of a fourth ringleader, but no evidence was ever found that connected Pestilence with an actual person, so ultimately the idea was dismissed."
"That was me."
Everyone turned in surprise when they realized it was Elaine who had spoken.
"I was the fourth horseman," she added silently.
The silence that followed was almost tangible. It was hard to believe that the small blond woman who sat huddled in a corner of the sofa, with her knees drawn up and wrapped tightly into a blanket had been a leading member of one of the most powerful drug rings in the US.
"You got to be kidding me," Luther muttered.
Ethan and Skye were taking the news better, probably best of all, still projecting their usual outside calm. But anyone who knew the agents well enough could see that on the inside they were far from it.
Benji meanwhile was staring open-mouthed and it took him a considerable amount of time until he noticed.
Next to him, Brandt was shaking his head in disbelief. Finally, he produced a single word question: "How?"
"I was studying chemistry and pharmaceutics in college, and started cooking meth as a way to earn money," Elaine explained. Her tone was soft and flat, and she kept staring into her teacup on the table. "I quickly became bored and experimented with other things: Ritalin, MDM, anything someone would pay money for. Eventually, my grades dropped, but by then I was in too deep. I lost my scholarship and lived on the streets for a while, but Chester had heard of my talents and picked me up."
There was a pause and when it became evident she wouldn't continue, Maddox did. "IMF first became interested in the Horsemen when they were connected to the disappearances of several government officials who were involved in investigations against them, and who usually turned up dead a few months later," he pointed out. "We were cautious at first because intel was very limited, but in November '99, an IMF team was sent to infiltrate the operation and if possible disrupt it from the inside. We lost contact with them in February 2000. Two weeks later, Mansfield turned up dead. After that the Horsemen became more prominent and less cautious, but also signs of differences within the group our agents had already reported before their radio silence were increasingly evident on the outside.
"In late March I was tasked with observing and possibly infiltrating the group to assess the situation in the hope that we could capitalize on their in-fighting," Maddox continued. "I found that there was indeed a major split in the group. After Mansfield had died, Gladiola had seized power, effectively alienating Sorbonne and everyone loyal to him. Also, I could confirm that our agents were still alive and held by Gladiola as lab rats.
"I decided to go against regulations and attempt a rescue in the hope that they might have valuable intel, but in the process, I was discovered by one of Gladiola's agents. However I was able to broker a deal with her and she helped me rescue the agents in return for a new identity," he finished and shot a side glance at Elaine. "Sadly the FBI had already picked up on their trail by then and managed to effectively shut them down, but could not get their fingers on either of the remaining two Horsemen."
There was a long pause as everyone let this information sink in. Then finally Brandt asked: "How is it we didn't know about any of this?"
Maddox shot another glance at Elaine, but again she stayed silent, so he took over. "Among law enforcement tensions were still running high regarding the Horsemen a long time after the FBI operation. They, although probably mostly Gladiola, were responsible for a lot of gruesome deaths of police officers and federal agents. So when Bray was granted protection by the IMF, the Secretary agreed to delete all records of her involvement.
"As for the most recent mission," he continued. "I've been keeping track of Gladiola and Sorbonne ever since we found evidence they were working together again around three months ago. I confirmed they were attempting to rebuild their organization, I went straight to Hunley. He authorized the operation and agreed to keep things under wraps for much the same reasons as above.
"Our original plan was to send Agent Bray in under her former persona, together with a small team, but it turned out they were too suspicious and we had to scrap the support. We did not know that their operations crossed with IMF missions," he concluded.
Silence descended again and lingered among them for a while, until Ethan got up. "Thanks for telling us," he said, then left.
The others slowly followed his example, leaving Elaine alone on her corner of the sofa. Only Skye lingered a moment longer.
"I think this is yours," she said, gently placing the thin knife on the table.
Elaine didn't look up. "Thanks," she answered, barely audible.
Skye nodded and headed for the door, but just before she reached it, she was softly called back. On a hunch, she closed the door before she turned.
Elaine was looking up, shy eyes peeking over the edge of the blanket. When her gaze met Skye's she flinched away, but then slowly looked back. "I'm sorry," she said in a soft voice, but clearly. "About how things happened. I gave you a pretty rough time and I know there's probably going to be nightmares that won't be easy. But I couldn't see a better way to do this."
"Well, you got all of us out alive," Skye commented and tried on a smile. She stepped around the table and leaned against the armchair in front of Elaine. "I'm sorry, too. That I beat you up and tried to kill you."
"It's okay," Elaine replied so lightly Skye wanted to believe her. "I've got to thank you for that, actually. You probably saved my life."
"I did?" Skye asked, incredulously.
"Just after you left me there, Nestor came by. If he had known I was alive then, he would have killed me," Elaine stated matter of fact.
Something about this bothered Skye, and after a moment she realized it was the calmness with which the other woman had talked. "You never thought you'd get out of this alive."
"I knew that was a risk," Elaine admitted diplomatically.
And suddenly Skye understood. After all, she had been there herself. "That's why you didn't tell anyone where you were going."
"That, and other things," the other woman clarified. "But yes. Nestor has always been the most dangerous. He's moody and sadistic, I've seen him rip out his victims fingers and toes, knuckle by knuckle, just for the fun of it. I couldn't risk anyone being subjected to that, if I could help it."
"And that's why you thought it a good idea to go in there alone?" Skye asked ironically.
"He knew me," Elaine replied. "I had the best chances. And if I had brought someone they didn't know, they'd just have become suspicious."
Skye replied with who-are-you-kidding look.
Elaine sighed. "Also this is my mess, I'm just trying to clean up. I've tried to deny it long enough, to myself most of all, but I'm responsible, too, for the things they did. The least I can do is try to stop him." She clenched her teeth and sunk her head onto her knees. "But he got away again."
"We're going to get him," Skye said. She had taken a step forward and put a hand on Elaine's shoulder. "You're not alone in this."
"I think I still have to get used to that," Elaine replied, looking up sheepishly. Then she leaned back, seemingly more relaxed. "Thanks."
That's it once again.
Thank you all for sticking with me on this one, I realize this probably wasn't exactly an easy read.
As promised, fluff will follow soon.
Also if you have enjoyed my writings so far, and want to know what the team are up to next, head over to ThiessenClocks' stories, specifically Lock&Load. It's technically a cross-over, but a lot of fun and totally worth it.